Skip to content

Michael Cohen’s lobbying offers glimpse of DC’s seediest underbelly

May 17, 2018
Get the Think newsletter.

Along downtown Washington’s famous K Street — where you can’t travel a block without bumping into a half-dozen lobbyists — some people are struggling to understand why the unfolding saga of President Donald Trump “fixer” (and personal lawyer) Michael Cohen is such a big deal.

The details of Cohen’s payment to porn star Stormy Daniels — allegedly to keep quiet her affair with Trump — plaster the front pages of the big papers and political websites. The cable news talking heads and nightly network broadcasts can’t get enough of it.

The salaciousness of Cohen’s operation helps explain some of the appeal. So do newly revealed details about Cohen’s lucrative side business working as a paid consultant for firms like AT&T and Swiss drug maker Novartis, offering “insights” and of course proximity to the Trump administration. In the most recent development, Novartis’ top lawyer announced he would be resigning due to the controversy.

The salaciousness of Cohen’s operation helps explain some of the appeal. So do newly revealed details about Cohen’s lucrative side business working as a paid consultant.

But K Street still is confused by the Cohen ruckus, and it’s easy to understand why. For years — decades really — many of the people who work there have been getting rich and powerful doing some of what Cohen apparently was trying to do — just without the hush money and the porn star.

On K Street, exploiting one’s connections to the rich and powerful is just another day at the office in a growing industry.

It’s a cycle as predictable as the midterm election. Every two years, a platoon of defeated or retiring members of Congress moves down from Capitol Hill and into the waiting arms of lobbying companies and firms. In fact, 26 such politicians made the switch as Trump moved into the White House in 2017, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors the revolving door between Congress, the federal bureaucracy and K Street on its OpenSecrets.org website.

OpenSecrets.org reports that nearly 200 former lawmakers have moved into the influence industry since the 111th Congress began in 2009. And this doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of former congressional staffers who routinely find K Street jobs too. These men and women are trading the long hours and relatively low pay of legislative aides, press assistants and the like for six-figure incomes advancing the interests of big companies like Verizon and Exxon, trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and interest groups like the National Rifle Association and Americans for Prosperity, a key hub in the political network built by industrialists Charles and David Koch.

Every two years, a platoon of defeated or retiring members of Congress moves down from Capitol Hill and into the waiting arms of lobbying companies and firms.

Many former staffers enhance their value by rotating between congressional staffs, the executive branch, and lobbying or consulting jobs. The OpenSecrets.org database lists more than 10,000 people whose resumes include stints on Capitol Hill, one or more executive branch agencies and lobbying or consulting for companies or groups with business before Congress. It’s a Washington influence trifecta.

The system feeds on itself and with every bite somehow gets bigger and more delicious for all involved, whether Democrat or Republican. A former congressman or senator has a built in intelligence network of ex-staffers scattered throughout the political landscape, through the federal bureaucracy, or working in another congressional office, increasing his or her marketability to potential lobbying clients. Because those professional networks are constantly growing, they also help ex-lawmakers retain their influence as their old colleagues leave Congress.

As an example, more than three dozen ex-staffers for former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who left Congress in 2007, are scattered throughout other Capitol Hill offices, the federal bureaucracy and K Street. A similar number of staffers who once worked for former Sen. Tom Daschle, Lott’s Democratic counterpart in the Senate, are in positions where they can use their legislative expertise and connections to feed Daschle information.

Lott is a registered lobbyist and considered one of Washington’s most influential. Daschle has followed a similarly influential path; before registering as a lobbyist he was a “strategic adviser.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now splitting his time between Washington and Rome, where his wife is Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican, also keeps a hand in the influence industry as a consultant.

To be clear: Lobbying as an activity is not inherently corrupt, nor illegal. I do some of it myself on behalf of strengthening voting rights, reducing the influence of big money in politics and other causes I find important to the strength of our democracy. And in fairness, service in Congress and on congressional staffs gives those who provide it insights into the legislative arts, not to mention a wealth of knowledge about the workings of American culture and the national economy.

Information-sharing can make for better policymaking, but it must come with strong disclosure requirements, and should be de-coupled as much as possible from campaign fundraising. We need to make improvements. For example, Congress should boost resources for nonpartisan research staff to provide it with objective information. This would reduce staffers’ dependence on the armies of lobbyists that special interests pay to push their clients’ agenda.

Information-sharing can make for better policymaking, but it must come with strong disclosure requirements, and should be de-coupled as much as possible from campaign fundraising.

Of course, Michael Cohen had no experience with legislating and no particular knowledge of the corporations that retained his “services.” His expertise was in trying to “fix” things and promote his relationship his powerful boss.

This makes Cohen’s brand of influence peddling particularly insidious. Hush funds and slush funds almost always subvert the public interest, not strengthen it. And he’s not alone in this regard. The ranks of lobbyists swell with people working to trade on their connections. Our anti-corruption and transparency laws have not always kept pace as the influence industry continues to change.

So while lobbyists may be shrugging, Cohen’s saga deserves every headline it’s getting.

Karen Hobert Flynn is the president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit good government watchdog with affiliates in 30 states and more than one million members nationally.